Words Stuck in The Hands: An OS[re:con]versation with Jessica Tyner Mehta, poet and author of ‘Secret-Telling Bones’
“Jessica Tyner Mehta’s work is both ethereal and accessible, graceful yet sharply tuned. There is music in her lines, entrancing the reader and then jolting them awake, like a lullaby with gleaming teeth. Mehta’s poems thunder with a strong first person narrative and a haunting confessional tone; they cut through to the reader like a piercing, direct look in the eye. Yet Mehta’s voice is never still, it softens in waves, offering an invitation to listen, and be transformed.” -Jamie Houghton
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The Operating System is thrilled to publish ‘Secret Telling Bones,’ Jessica Tyner Mehta’s fourth book of poetry. Today Mehta discusses what poets are, what identities are, and how the tools of confession give shape to answers and,of course, more questions.
Who are you?
That’s a loaded question. Answers vary depending on who’s asking, current moods and recent happenings. I’m a Cherokee woman poet, writer, entrepreneur, business owner, Type-A with a dogged sense of unease and ambition. I’ve seen more, lived more and experienced more than I ever would have imagined growing up in that small Oregon town. Had I known at fifteen where I’d be at thirty-five, I never would have believed it. A lot of living has been packed into these years.
Why are you a poet?
I have no other choice — I believe I was born a poet. I’ve never been good at verbalizing. Words get stuck in my hands. My forms of expression have always come out not just in writing, but specifically in poetry. Things can be said with line breaks and alliteration that I just can’t muster in any other kind of writing. Crafting my novel was like giving birth, painful and slow. Poems come fast and in gushes, though I dare not say with ease.
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
For me, being a “poet” can be part of who you are at the core as well as a way to define level of publication. I believe I “became a poet” when my first book was published, or perhaps when my first piece was published in a literary journal. At the same time, I’ve always been a poet. I still find remnants of poems I wrote at seven-years-old. It’s like asking when someone became a mathematician. Was it when they got their degree in math, their first math-centric job — or was it when they fell in love with numbers in first grade? It’s a journey with a lot of curves, not a final destination.
What’s a “poet”, anyway?
It depends whom you ask. The simplest definition is someone who writes poetry. It can be part of defines who you are, a job description for the lucky few, but I prefer a definition penned down in a very official-sounding dictionary: A poet is “a person possessing special powers of imagination.”
“I write about what I know, what I’m passionate about, what (personally) hurts and heals and loves. This is, unsurprisingly, not always about specific issues or happenings that may or may not be making headlines. The role of the poet has always, naturally, to put into beautiful words essences of the human spirit. To make others feel beyond borders other forms of expression might not be able to cross.”
What is the role of the poet today?
This one’s tough, especially as a Native American poet. I’ve had some people tell me it’s my “responsibility” or “job” as a poet to address certain political, ethical or moral conundrums — particularly with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Is it our responsibility as poets, writers, creatives or artists to use our talents for a certain voice? A lot of people think so. I don’t, and I’m often in the minority. I write about what I know, what I’m passionate about, what (personally) hurts and heals and loves. This is, unsurprisingly, not always about specific issues or happenings that may or may not be making headlines. The role of the poet has always, naturally, to put into beautiful words essences of the human spirit. To make others feel beyond borders other forms of expression might not be able to cross. However, it’s not a “responsibility” of a poet, simply a happy side effect. I’ve never written for anyone but myself. It just so happens that, like every poet, how I write often tugs at a reader because at our very center we’ve all experienced very similar stings in life.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?
I’m often dubbed a “Native American poet,” by myself as well as others. What does that mean? It simply means being Cherokee has informed who I am as both a person and a writer — it doesn’t mean I can speak for every Cherokee or Native American. Instead, I see my role as being informed by my experiences (culturally and otherwise). Do I have a relatively unique perspective? Of course. We all do. Is it important to have such a voice, a so-called “NDN” voice, heard in the poetry community and beyond? Of course, just as it’s important to have every voice heard. My Native background has surely positioned me and my voice in a certain light, and I can no more remove that from my poetry as I can my experience as a woman. However, roles are fluid and new ones are added as we move through life.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I’m not one of those writers who makes myself sit down daily and at least try to write poetry. I write for a living, owning a writing services business, so of course I do write daily. However, poems seem to come in bursts, often at very inopportune times. In those bursts, general themes do emerge. It usually takes me awhile (weeks or months) to digest a certain experience or time in my life. Naturally, when the poems emerge post-digestion, they’re organically themed. I never “intend to write a book” of poetry. Secret-Telling Bones is my sixth book and fourth book of poetry so, technically speaking, I’m pretty comfortable and familiar with the process. For me, it’s never a struggle to write if I abide by my natural process. I can tell by the end result when I’m forcing work. It’s only a struggle when that happens, and I’m at the point in my writing career where I don’t push it.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?
As I mentioned, themes occur naturally for me. I can often tell when I’m “done” with a particular type of poetry writing, and at that point I start putting together a manuscript. Any new poems are tucked away for future projects. However, I never sit down with an intention to “write a theme.”
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?
I write very few formally constructed poems, save for the occasional pantoum. I also wrote one “true reverse” poem, which was more a practice in word play than what I consider authentic (to me) poetry. I do believe we’ll tend to mimic writers who we read. My favorite poets are Li-Young Lee and Kim Addonizio, and my own work has been compared to Addonizio’s — so I think there’s some truth to that.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
My book titles are usually named after one of the poems in the collection, and often represent general themes of the books. Overall, much of my writing concerns love (the beauty and ugly of it), my experiences as a bi-racial NDN, and living with an eating disorder (anorexia and exercise-induced bulimia). “Secret-telling bones” refers to both the most obvious signifier of starvation as well as my upbringing and relationship with family. It’s also why my mother is featured on the cover. Many things are perhaps genetic that we don’t consider — anorexia is just one of them.
What does this particular collection of poems represent to you
…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
…as indicative of your history?
…as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
It’s a very good representation of my work, approach and creative practice. To me, it’s clearly “my voice” which I hope is transparent and approachable. I believe words, especially poetry, are meant to be read. Enjoyed. Digested and peeled apart. As a confessional poet, I don’t hold anything back, which means my history regularly leaks onto the pages. There’s no room for modesty or embarrassment. I don’t dress up my past or exacerbate it. I want it to be presented in my own honesty. My hope and intention is that my work truly reaches some readers. I spent so much of my life thinking I was the only person who felt a certain way or experienced a particular trauma. There are so many of us out there. I wish I’d fumbled the “right” books into my own hands when I was younger. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so alone or strange.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
It offers a snapshot into specific emotions, events and happenings that — while the specifics might be somewhat unique — the overarching feelings have been experienced by all. It’s a living, breathing testament to the human spirit and our incredible propensity to survive. Thrive. It’s a hand held out and a promise that, no matter how much it seems that way, truly we’re not alone.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
Honestly, and I know this sounds clichéd, the best possible outcome is that it genuinely reaches at least one person. Seriously, I would be over the moon with one. If it helped one reader see that there are others out there “like them,” that’s the first step towards understanding, community and compassion. Of course, I also hope this books help better cement my role as a creative within various communities, both locally and globally. I found my home amidst the poets, the creatives, the so-called crazy ones. It’s comforting to dig deeper into my practice armed with my books for momentum.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
It’s easy to pigeonhole me. Native American. Female. Bi-sexual. And I’ll admit, I’ve had no problem with previous publishers submitting my work to niche awards whether it’s based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age. However, I’ve never sought out a “Native American publisher,” “LBGTQ publisher” or any other publishing avenue that was based largely on my fulfilling a certain niche they were lacking. I’m not saying these niche publishers are wrong or taking the wrong angle — I’m just saying it can be a priority for all publishers, mainstream and otherwise, to seek out a variety of voices and writers.
“Quality” is not synonymous with mass appeal. Nobody, including publishers, are required to showcase perfectly diversified books and writers. However, they’re armed with a very powerful platform and position, and given the opportunity to do with that as they wish. Making the effort to look beyond the easy and readily available might not be the simplest or fastest approach, but it can certainly be the most fruitful.